An obsolete ordinance?

Clash of city, federal laws muddies supportive-housing debate

The city has a law on the books that seems pretty straightforward — to prevent undue concentration of supportive housing in any one area, programs need to be spaced at least a quarter-mile apart from each other and other facilities, like emergency shelters and community correctional facilities.

In two recent developments, the city approved supportive-housing projects that clearly violated the ordinance. The projects were near eight or nine similar programs. It begs the question for some residents how — if ever — the city would choose to enforce the ordinance.

Some residents in Whittier, Stevens Square and Phillips opposed the projects and say they are confused by what they see as the city’s flagrant disregard for its own law.

Why does the ordinance appear so toothless — and should the city drop it altogether if it is not going to enforce it?

Some key policymakers argue that the need for supportive housing is so great the city needs to pursue every opportunity it can. To fail to allow it would violate federal anti-discrimination law, they said.

Last year, the city approved the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation’s plan for Lydia House in Stevens Square, 40 units of supportive housing for recently homeless people suffering from chemical dependency, mental illness or HIV/AIDS.

The city gave the go-ahead even though it identified eight facilities within a quarter-mile of Lydia House’s proposed location, 1920 LaSalle Ave., which would trigger the ordinance — including a community correctional facility, the Home Away for Girls, and residential treatment programs for people with mental illness.

The city recently also approved the Collaborative Village Initiative, a supportive-housing program serving 128 people near Franklin and Elliot avenues, in spite of the fact it identified nine facilities that trigger

the quarter-mile spacing ordinance.

The projects generated a lot of debate. Supportive-housing backers have dismissed opponents as those who just don’t want

to live near disabled people.

Some people in the affected neighborhoods say they have accepted more than their share of supportive housing.

"Both this neighborhood and Whittier have simply had more compassion than any other community," said Jim Graham, a Ventura Village planner who opposed the Collaborative Village plan. "We allowed them (supportive-housing programs) when no other community would. We allowed people to crawl into our boat until it sunk the boat."

City policymakers made what they call a "reasonable accommodation" under the U.S. Fair Housing Act Amendments, allowing Lydia House and Collaborative Villages to move ahead. Had the city enforced the ordinance, it would have discriminated against the handicapped people the housing would serve, they said.

Assistant City Attorney Carol Lansing said there are instances where the city could reject supportive-housing programs based on the quarter-mile spacing ordinance. Someone could propose a home for unwed mothers, with support services, for instance. Unwed mothers are not a protected class under the Fair Housing Act, she said.

The quarter-mile ordinance even applies to supportive housing like Lydia House — unless the supporters show a reasonable accommodation is necessary "to provide an equal opportunity for housing for people with disabilities," she said.

In the case of Lydia House, an ad hoc citizens group is prepared to challenge the city’s decision in a lawsuit that will

cost both sides thousands of dollars.

The two sides will file briefs for summary judgment April 11, said Mary Yaeger, the attorney for the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation.

She said she thought the city should repeal the quarter-mile spacing law.

"I think the quarter-mile spacing rule is an institutional policy barrier to solving the homeless crisis," she said.

‘We don’t need these services in the 13th Ward’City Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) represents the Whittier and Phillips neighborhoods, and he said he understands why some people may want to spread out supportive-housing programs throughout the community.

"But the truth is, the needs for these facilities are concentrated in a small area," he said. "And I don’t see any reason not to provide the services where they are needed.

We don’t need these services in the 13th Ward. We need them in Phillips and Whittier and Stevens Square."

Zimmermann said he did not think it was possible to have too many supportive housing programs in one neighborhood.

"I don’t think there is a critical point there," he said. "If there is, I don’t think we are anywhere near it. I have door-knocked practically the whole ward."

City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), who represents the area around Lydia House, said it is not "a concentrated neighborhood." She said a home near Lydia House recently sold for millions of dollars.

"This is over," she said. "We made a decision five months ago."

"Looking at each project individually provides the best opportunity for input and discussion regarding each individual project," she said. "There is a reason there is a Board of Adjustment and a Planning Commission. We make variances and exceptions to the rule all the time."

If Lydia House opponents want a one-size-fits-all solution to a very complicated problem, "then maybe the solution is to eliminate the (spacing) ordinance," Goodman said.

County Commissioner Gail Dorfman supports county funding of Lydia House, she said. Minneapolis shouldn’t have

too high of a concentration of supportive housing, she said, and then qualified her answer.

"Something about it bothers me — that somehow these people are different," she said. "I have trouble saying something is wrong with supportive-housing. I think it is an asset to the community."